At the beginning of November Mexico, Brazil, and, to a lesser extent, Spain and Portugal celebrated the Day of the Dead, a festive holiday whose symbol is a human skull. These cultures do not deny the finality of it all as do we North Americans, who mummify our decaying faces and bodies while we are still alive rather than in preparation for an afterlife. So it is absolutely natural that death, whether treated as comedy, tragedy, or simply generically, is a major presence in the cinema of Spain and Portugal and their former colonies in Latin America. The narratives and documentaries might be character or politically-driven, but they rarely stray from the netherworld. (We’re talking real death, not the mindless mowdown perpetuated by the Hollywoodites who would sell their kids for a map to the Fountain of Youth).
Thanks to contributing funds and co-pro facilitation from Madrid-based Ibermedia, auteurs in Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries on both sides of the Atlantic can approach death, or anything else for that matter, however they wish. New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is honoring Ibermedia in its series, “Iberoamerica: That’s the Way We Are,” an outstanding 15-film exhibition running November 14 – 30, with some of the titles traveling to the Palm Springs International Film Festival in January.
Brechtian distancing devices and revisionist Greek choruses are integral to the structures of two otherwise wildly different masterpieces in the series. Bolivian director Marcos Loayza‘s black comedy “The Heart of Jesus” (2004), the title (even if he is a practicing Catholic) and bogeymen (greedy insurers) of which would surely tickle Michael Moore‘s funny bone; and esteemed Mexican filmmaker Arturo Ripstein‘s “Such Is Life” (2000), a transposition of Seneca’s classic revenge tragedy Medea to a rundown Mexico City barrio by the director’s frequent collaborator Paz Alicia Garciadiego.
Loayza’s idea of alienation effects is a combo of title cards and recurring surreal shots of the protagonist in a bath; his notion of a chorus, a guitarist whose songs comment on the story we’re watching. Yet we can’t help but be engaged by the hilarious escapades of the middle-aged government worker, Jesus (Augustin Mendieta), who, screwed by his insurance company after a hospital stay following a heart attack, assumes the identity of a same-named cancer-ridden man in order to avoid the bill. Jesus is a self-centered contrarian, but Loayza surrounds him with a loving nurse and such sympathetic terminal patients, several of whom expire over the course of the film, that the director’s intense humanism is never in question.
Spurned, vindictive Medea committed infanticide, as does the gifted actress Arcelia Ramirez‘s Julia in “Such Is Life.” Yet Ripstein keeps panning to an old TV set, where a half-baked trio sings about Julia’s plight, while an arrhythmic boy shakes maracas in the foreground. Ripstein’s characters defy convention, occasionally looking directly into the frequently moving HD camera that is filming them in extended takes. The ploys may keep the viewer at arm’s length, but the power of the filmmaking and the gut-wrenching story line pulls the audience in nevertheless.
Then there are bloody genre films. Based on a true story, Colombian director Andrew Baiz‘s “Satanas” (2007), an impressive first feature, tells about three conflicted characters, one an English tutor (and former Vietnam vet) turned mass murderer, the other two his victims (a conflicted priest, who feels responsible for a poor mother murdering her three children; and a young, beautiful market vendor who turns to drugging and robbing men in bars to survive). The tutor talks about Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde to a pupil, but the reference applies as much to the unfortunate recipients of his bullets as it does to him. (He killed 29 in one day.)
Julio Chavez, who won raves for his principal role in “El Custodio,” gives another astonishing performance in Argentinian director Israel Adrian Caetano‘s excellent “Red Bear” (2002), in which his title character is a cop-killing gangster just released from prison. Eager to build an emotional bond with his young daughter, whose mother lives with another man, and to supply her with the material items she lacks (this takes place during Argentina’s economic crisis), he participates in a heist. When double-crossed, he mows down his “partners” in stunning action scenes that could have come out of a good Western or a John Woo flick. He is a killing machine: We only know he has an emotional side by observing him with the little girl.
Other films in the series have a more overt ideological bent. Their treatment of death may be less sensational but, in the grand scheme of Latin American political affairs, packs a greater punch. One of South America’s finest filmmakers, the Chilean Andres Wood creates in “Machuca” (2004) an emotional wallop that haunts long after the film is over. Many South American directors have made movies about their countries’ quashed rebellions and reactionary juntas, but Machuca has the poignancy of an Italian neo-realist film fused with astute observations of Chilean politics and that conservative nation’s deeply ingrained social stratification.
In 1973, the year the Communist Allende was democratically elected president, 11-year-old spoiled rich boy Gonzalo attends a private English school in Santiago and befriends a poor scholarship student, Pedro Machuca. He finds in Pedro’s family and shantytown community a vivaciousness and sincerity sorely lacking in the haute bourgeois world inhabited by his anti-Allende parents. Yet when push comes to shove, after Allende is toppled, Gonzalo gives Pedro a Judas kiss: He has witnessed the brutal murder by Pinochet’s men of Pedro’s cousin, the teenaged girl of the slums that Gonzalo had a crush on. He does not want to relinquish his privileges. The relationship between the youths clearly mirrors that of the reactionaries and the Communists, the haves and the have-nots.
“The Dignity of the Nobodies” (2005) is a doc, but it’s one of Argentinian maestro Fernando Solanas‘s strongest films. Many documentaries have been made about Argentina’s economic meltdown of 2001 and the police repression that followed, but Solanas’s take is unique, not to mention his stylish touch. Punctuated by scenes of protests and brutality by the cops, the film tells of several “nobodies,” individuals more or less out of the public eye who became deeply involved in anti-government mobilization.
One fellow was shot in the head but survived; two others were not so lucky, though their deaths spurred further anti-government actions. One woman whose belongings were going to auction collected her friends and neighbors to bust up the gathering, giving birth to a movement in which women would appear at other auctions and sing the national anthem until the proceedings were called off. A young priest nearly gets killed for his progressive activities. One guy, an activist who had many friends “disappeared” in the ’70s, keeps plugging on, founding a soup kitchen in his ex-urb two-and-a-half hours from Buenos Aires. Unfortunately for him and others, history repeats itself: While so many people lost everything, the government continued to prop up corporations. In spite of Argentina’s continuing disparity, Solanas’s portraits are ultimately hopeful — a testament to the tenacity of both the country’s people and one of their most accomplished filmmakers.
ALSO RECOMMENDED: “Kill Them All,” Esteban Schroeder, Colombia (2007); “The Immortal,” Mercedes Moncada Rodriguez, Nicaragua (2004); “Fados,” Carlos Saura, Spain (2007); “Encarnacion,” Anahi Berneri, Argentina (2007)